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Doug Oakervee: let's get going now

Crossrail chairman Doug Oakervee is clear − Crossrail will be built. The outgoing chairman urges his successor to ‘start digging’.

When Doug Oakervee joined the Crossrail project as executive chairman at the end of 2005, even he had his doubts about whether it would ever be delivered.

After decades of work, the scheme was credible but it was hugely expensive, hugely risky and had very little political support.

“I thought that the odds were against me but I took on the challenge on that basis,” he explains.

“I suppose that at my age and my stage of career if you are going to take on a challenge then you want a real one. It was.”

Since then, backed by a committed and knowledgeable team, he has successfully turned the odds around. He has established political champions and has worked hard to get the business community on-side.

He has also used his technical experience from his previous major public projects such as Hong Kong’s Airport and Airport Express railway to make the project affordable and bankable with a bullet-proof £15.9bn outturn cost.

Achieving Royal Assent in July 2008 and sealing a finance agreement shortly after were, he says, among the major highlights of the last three years.

But will Crossrail survive?

The question now of course is that although the project has got this far, will it survive the economic downturn? Could it be forced by a General Election into more delay and pondering?

“Crossrail will survive in its current form and its current timescale,” he says adamantly. “But what is needed is a bit of agility and flexible thought around the sequencing of the funds.”

It was originally assumed that funds raised through Section 106 agreements and private sector contributions would cover the initial spend on the job. Clearly much of this funding will now have to wait until the property market revives.

“[Funding] may now come forward in a different order to the way originally thought,” explains Oakervee. “As I’ve always said, £15.9bn is an outturn cost within which the railway is to be built. That will be achieved.”

Oakervee points to the political momentum behind the project is evidence that it will continue. The project enjoys the support of Transport for London, the Department for Transport plus Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis and London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson.

“Bidders went through a harsh prequalification process and a very stringent tender process. All were competent to do it and I’m certain that Bechtel will do a good job.”

Doug Oakervee, Crossrail chairman

The relationship built between Johnson and Oakervee is such that Oakervee has become, and will continue as, the mayor’s trusted pro-bono technical advisor on various engineering-led project ideas − not least his ambitious plan to construct a new offshore airport for the capital in the Thames Estuary.

He remains convinced that constructing an airport platform in the Thames Estuary is straightforward. But Oakervee is very clear that creating the infrastructure to support it is a tougher challenge that will require a radical rethink of UK planning and a major commitment to developing the whole estuary.

“I believe that history will show that Boris was the man that paved the way,” he says, pointing out that this project remains several decades away and will have to sit alongside a new high speed rail network. “It will come to pass − it is part of a very big (planning and development) jigsaw.”

“Get on with it quick”

Right now, however, Oakervee is clear that Boris, like Lord Adonis, remains focused on, and is absolutely behind, the Crossrail project − regardless of recent Tory threats to review the project and government wobbles over the legislation needed for a business levy.

That said, his advice to new Crossrail chief executive Rob Holden and chairman Terry Morgan is to “get on with it quick”. The downturn, he says, means there should be opportunities to save money but who knows what is around the corner? In short, start digging soon.

“The longer and deeper the recession, the steeper the gradient will be coming out and hence inflation will go way up” he says. “It depends when that point of inflation hits us as to how the business is managed to stay within the £15.9bn.”

The right choice

Seeing the Crossrail team grow is very welcome, he says, not least with the appointment of the Transcend consortium as programme partner and the slightly delayed announcement that Bechtel is delivery partner.

“Yes, it’s the right choice but by the same token I would have been confident with any of those that bid,” he explains.

“They went through a harsh prequalification process and a very stringent tender process. All were competent to do it and I’m certain that Bechtel will do a good job.”

For his part, however, it is time to hand over to the new blood, having opted not to remain on the team as a consultant.

“Running big projects is not my future role. You have to be younger to do it,” he says. “I have made a contribution and this is a good point to go out on.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Friends of the North Kent Marshes

    Friends of the North Kent Marshes are wholly opposed to the construction of an airport anywhere in the Thames Estuary because of the immense damage it would cause to the area’s internationally important wildlife and the wider environment.

    The issue was exhaustively investigated between 2002 and 2005 in the Government’s Aviation White Paper. All the key players, including the aviation industry, contributed. An airport in the Thames Estuary was conclusively ruled out and this decision upheld by the High Court. In addition to the unprecedented environmental damage and the resulting massive legal implications, the investigation found that an estuary airport did not make sense economically, would not meet the requirements of the aviation industry and presented a significantly higher risk of ‘birdstrike’ than at any other major airport in the UK.
    To quote an RSPB blog 'Tits and Planes'
    Doug Oakervee ' may be right in saying the construction is feasible from an engineering point of view. But that's as irrelevant as engineering a chocolate fireguard. From a human, economic and environmental point of view, it's a catastrophe.'

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